Day 7 The Todra Gorges
I wake before dawn and take my camera onto the flat roof of the hotel to wait for sunrise. It sort of makes up for the missed sunset in the desert. At breakfast, Jennifer & I continue to struggle for a British cup of tea. Meanwhile Simo is making a big show of distributing maps of where we are going today. They are free hand-outs from the hotel showing the local area and where to find other hotels in this chain.
We set out for what the schedule says is a five hour drive to the Todra Gorges, only is isn’t and we are ahead of schedule. Simo (or is it the driver?) decides to stop at a fertile valley and take a walk through fields.
Having engaged Hamid, a very handsome young man to guide us we scramble down a bank. Jennifer declines and stays with the minibus. Hamid’s English is excellent and, having just left school, is planning to go to university. We are walking through fields of alfalfa or lucern, which the women are cutting by hand. I spot a huge pile of corn stalks on legs and tell Mary to come and investigate. She can’t believe that there’s a donkey under the load. We engage with the farmers and photograph the loaded beast, who is contentedly chewing on a leaf sticking out of the stack on its back. Next Mary befriends some little boys and gets them to do cartwheels in return for ballpoint pens. Simo is initially alarmed, telling us not to encourage them, but Mary has managed these situations before and it’s clear that they have to work for any reward and not just get a handout. It’s been an interesting and unexpected interlude and as we walk though the village, we see the minibus with Jennifer waiting to pick us up.
Our morning coffee stop is at Tinejdad, an unremarkable place. Further on, at Tinerhir, we turn off to the Gorges du Todra. Their dramatic red cliffs remind me of China and the Three Gorges on the Yangtze River.
As it’s around lunch-time we cross the shallow river into one of several restaurants nestled under the over-hanging cliffs. Although lunch is always at our own expense, we never get a choice and are herded to a particular establishment. The driver gets commission for bringing us and the same goes for any craft and retail opportunities we visit. The restaurant has a corrugated iron roof which is attractively lined with traditional fabrics. It’s hot under the corrugated iron and several people are not eating lunch today. Others are sharing dishes, so the restaurant is not making much. After the first few days of eating three meals a day, there had been a growing rebellion over lunches. Some people are opting not to eat at all. Jennifer often brings a banana from the evening fruit bowl. Gary and Willy don’t like fixed menus and often order one dish to share. Sue and Anne are gluten intolerant and save their breakfast cornbread for lunch. Liz, Mary and I eat everything. The exceptions are when one of us has the runs and we all have a turn at that. As time goes by we get used to the over abundance and no longer feel guilty about not eating everything on the plate as we were brought up to do. Variously, we discover we were fed ‘The staving millions of: India, Biaffra or Russia’, depending on which decade one grew up in.
It’s a relief to paddle in the river on the way back to the minibus, an opportunity to wash the desert form my sandals.
Our hotel at Dades is a modern version of a Kasbah with spectacular views of the town from the pool terrace.
I make for the swimming pool as it’s long enough to do nine or ten strokes before turning, but it’s very cold and doesn’t warm up as I swim. So much for doing half an hour and I escape to the jacuzzi which has warm bubbles. Mary and Sue arrive, but don’t swim, choosing to have a beer instead. Dinner is another buffet with the usual dishes, salads tagine and fruit. It’s all getting a bit samey.
Day 8 The Atlas Mountains
Our quest for a decent cup of tea escalates, joined by Garry, who is also a morning tea drinker. The chain hotels here and in Erfoud do Liptons tea bags on strings. In Erfoud we put the bags in small cups, bringing another cup of cold milk (essential) to the table to add to the brewed tea bag. This has to be repeated for each new cup of tea (I need three) with hot but not boiling water. In the past, Jennifer has asked in vain, in her best Arabic, for a teapot and milk jug and one morning I arrive at breakfast to find that she’s got her tea in a large glass tumbler. I try it and we agree it is the best solution so far. This morning she has again asked for a teapot as there are no tumblers. Garry joins us at the table and orders a teapot and to our great astonishment it arrives, albeit with only one teabag. Jennifer immediately stops a thin faced waiter who nods and disappears. I notice that he has he’s re-appeared without the teapot. I remind him and it does arrive. Hooray!
Our first stop is Ouarzazate and the Kasbah de Taourirt. This is a four-hundred year-old castle/palace which had been partially restored. It’s a fine piece of architecture and has been used for locations on several movies.
Of particular note are the painted wood ceilings. At each of these stops, Simo organises a local guide. This one has quite good English and is very informative. Simo tries to contribute information but his accent is no more accessible that the guide’s and he doesn’t really have anything to add.
We take a walk through the streets before continuing our journey to the Atlas Mountains, passing the ‘Hollywood’ of Morocco. In the distance we can see film lots and sets representing other African and middle eastern locations.
Some of the others suggest that this might have been interesting to look at. Personally I have no need to look at film sets. Lawrence of Arabia was filmed around here and I imagine loads of horsemen galloping over the desert behind Peter O’Toole. At least there is a herd of camels to look at in the arid landscape.
Our journey through the Atlas Mountains takes us up steep winding roads with precipitous drops to the valleys below. We climb at least three major passes, the highest of which is closed in winter. Someone has an altitude meter and records the highest point. The grandeur and colours in the mountains is breath-taking as is our speed.
Hotoman passes scores of heavy lorries winding their way up and down. Fortunately there is not too much traffic in the opposite direction, but there are pleas from the back not to swing around corners so much. Along the way, on wide bends, lone men have set up their stalls of rock crystals and craft-ware for sale. I can see there’s nothing I’d want to buy, but the shoppers and browsers would like to stop. However, time presses, no commissions have been arranged and the lorries we have passed would catch up and have to be re-passed.
Mary and Sue are on about Argan oil, the latest ‘must have’ in New Zealand for hair care and cooking. I’ve never heard of it and think that these uses are a strange combination. On reflection, coconut oil has many uses.
Argan oil comes from a berry on a tree which grows in the Atlas Mountains and goats famously climb these trees to graze. At our coffee stop Mary spotted what she thought might be one of these trees, but Simo says no, there are no Argan trees in this area. On our way down the mountains, Mary and Sue see a sign for a ‘Woman’s Collective’ selling Argan oil. They ask the driver to stop, but no, he’s not going to. We suspect he doesn’t have an arrangement with the collective. Later we find out that it’s not really a women’s collective but a marketing ploy to attract women customers. It almost worked.
The drive to Marrakesh passes through agricultural land and at this time of year the crops have been harvested. Olive trees still bear fruit and there are a few patches of cabbages newly planted for the winter. Our riad in Marrakesh is Le Pavillon Oriental, but it’s in the Medina and we can’t just drive up to it. The manageress meets us and boys with carts load our cases and trundle though tortuous alleyways to and unmarked door. As we have come to expect, this opens onto a tranquil courtyard and there’s a pool. It’s been a long uncomfortable and sweaty journey so I make a bee line. It’s possible to push off the steps and one end, swim two or three strokes before doing a tumble turn, then back to the steps. It’s not much exercise, but it’s cooling.
‘It all happens in the huge town square at night’, we’re told and Simo says it goes on until dawn. It is indeed buzzy when we get there. Great avenues of stalls have been set up selling all manner of street food. You sit at a trestle table and eat your food off a piece of paper. There are some gruesome options such as sheep heads, lungs and other offal. Several stalls sell hot snails. Some of us don’t fancy eating at these stalls, which makes Simo cross. Apparently they have been feeding tourists for years with no reported side effects. We are offered a choice and divide into two groups. Six of us go to a restaurant with tables, chairs, cutlery and napkins. The rest (including Simo’s two sons who have joined us for a family holiday) go for the street food. We spot a very nice looking place and Simo pops into the kitchen on the pre-text of checking its cleanliness. He emerges to suggest a special offer of chicken with preserved lemon. He’s done a deal with the restaurant. Garry spots a roast lamb dish on a neighbouring table and asks the diners what it’s called. Simo is furious and thinks this is inappropriate. I think the chicken sound good but Garry is determined on the lamb. Once again I have to intervene and tell Simo to go as we are all adults and can look after ourselves. Actually, all of us at this table are very experienced travellers and Marrakesh has the reputation for being one of the safest places in Morocco.
We’ve had our salads and are waiting for the main course when Simo comes to check on us. They’ve finished their street food and are ready for the horse and cart ride around the city by night in recompense for the cancelled camel ride in the desert. He goes away and Hotoman, our driver, waits for us to finish, hovering in the door. Next there’s a belly dancer with paper money in her bra strap. Garry briefly gets up to move his hips as does Jennifer. Fortunately I’m hemmed in behind the table and concentrate on my food. Eventually she tries elsewhere. It’s late by the time we tumble out of the restaurant and make our way to the horse and carriage area. We need three to accommodate all of us. Liz is in high spirits and joins me, Mary and Sue. We encourage her to go on the top with the driver to get the best view. It’s lovely to see this first time traveller, who many years ago left New Zealand for Canada and got as far as Queensland, enjoying every moment. We drive around for about an hour past all the posh hotels. Sue is concerned that one of the horses is not going straight, he’s veering off to the right and the driver keeps using the whip. Fortunately all the retail establishments are closed at this late hour and it’s just past midnight when we are returned to the main square. By this time the crowds have begun to thin out and activity is slowing down, so much for the ‘all night party’. We’ve all taken a careful note of the way back to the hotel, so it’s with some surprise that we see Simo moving off to the left in completely the wrong direction. We all shout and point to the right. Even his wife and sons shout ‘the other way’, but he is adamant and says he knows his own country. Clearly he has a poor sense of direction and is eventually persuaded to go to the right but not without a small tantrum.